Tag Archives: America

Goose Island and the Return to Chicago

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I have a lot of fond memories of Chicago.

Longtime readers may remember that I was there back in 2012, where I went to C2E2 with my partner at the time, hung out with a few of my friends (some from Chicago, others from NYC), and tried a LOT of fantastic beers. 3 Floyd’s Arctic Panzer Wolf, the many amazing selections Revolution Brewing had and still has, and, of course, Goose Island beers. In fact, Matilda was the very first beer I had in Chicago, and was the first beer with Brettanomyces in it that I had. While it wasn’t the best Goose Island beer of the trip (That title goes to the FANTASTIC bottle of Bourbon County Bramble Rye I had), it still has a special place in my heart. Hell, I still think I have one of the bottles from that trip stashed away in the cellar.

IMG_20151113_144843-01What I didn’t quite realize at the time was that there was a very heated debate going on in the beer circles. In 2011 Goose Island announced that they would be selling their stake of the brewery to Anheuser-Busch InBev, with the remaining shares also being sold to AB InBev. Social media went, as it always does with news like this, absolutely nuts. A year after the announcement when things were starting to roll out, the web was filled with conspiracy theories and scenarios of the quality of beer taking a severe nosedive. Three years later, Goose Island has made more of a push in to the Canadian market, with the latest offering, Goose IPA, being a favourite among many.

So when Goose Island invited me on trip to Chicago in September to tour their facilities and check out the much anticipated 312 Block Party, I jumped at the chance for a few reasons. Firstly, I’ve heard a lot about the block party. My local friend from Chicago, Corben, said a lot of good things about it, as well as many beer nerd friends. Secondly, I wanted to try some of the more different offerings from the brewery. So far we only have Matilda, Sophie, Pepe Nero, Honkers, and Goose IPA. All staples and mainstays. I wanted some one-offs. And finally, I wanted to see the differences found four years after a small brewery has been bought by one of the big guys.

And folks, some of you might not like hearing this, others, like me, might have known this for years, but…

They’re doing really good work in the name of better beer and the buyout has done little more than given them the tools to play around more and bring forth offerings typically found in a few bars in a single city to places all over the country. Aside from the very normal problem all breweries regardless of size have in terms of some batches not doing as well as others, there has been very little drop in terms of quality (frankly there’s been a rise) and the rate of consistency of said quality is outstanding. 

IMG_20151113_143627With no other beer is this more true than with Bourbon County Stout. Originally served as a special milestone “batch 1000” beer at their Clybourne brewpub in 1992, the beer now has a cult following among beer nerds. The Bourbon County off-shoots have an arguably even more rabid following, with crowds at the 312 Block Party running as fast as they could in the rain to get in line for a small sample of the selected limited release batches. And to be honest, after tasting the Proprietor’s Bourbon County at the event, with the gorgeous notes of Cassia and coconut water and a slightly warming creamy texture…hell, I’d run through a fire for that beer. Several fires, even.

As far as what’s changed at Goose Island since I was last there, it seems to be one of those “good kinds of problems” that I’ve been seeing a lot with breweries who are either bought or are just naturally growing. Similar to the Sam Adams brewery in Boston, Goose Island’s Fulton brewery, where the beers were mostly made, seems to be slowly transforming in to an art space for beer, allowing brewers to experiment with ideas on new brews that range from alteration on classic styles, to . The other part of the brewery is devoted to one of their best sellers, Matilda. The tanks holding Matilda are freakin’ huge, with several vertical tanks on the roof being maintained temperature-wise because head brewer Jared Jankowski and his team found that Matilda tastes better when it’s brewed in the winter.

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The real big change though, and by far one of the most impressive, is Goose Island’s Barrel House. A 133,000 square foot facility filled with full barrels in numbers so large I don’t honestly think I can accurately guess and they’re already talking about expanding the damned thing. The facility is filled with beer aging in pretty much all types of barrels you can think of (different bourbons, different wines, different tequilas…), all in varying degrees of time length and temperature. It’s a monstrous facility that really brings home the primary drive of Goose Island’s success: their ability to make rare beers combined with the actual talent it takes to make them well.

So as I’m standing in the barrel house sipping on a 2013 Gillian, a mindblowing farmhouse ale with strawberry notes and a hint of wildflowers and honey with a delicate dry finish, a world class beer to be sure…I can’t help but think “why would I ever be against a brewery, or a company that purchases a brewery, that wants to make this facility and beers like this a reality?”

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And that’s where, in the name of good beer, I have to side with Goose Island. I understand that a lot of people hate big breweries and feel that they take jobs and revenue away from smaller breweries, but this trip gave me the impression that Goose Island isn’t trying to do that as much as people suspect. While they have many quality beers as part of their regular rotation (Again, my love for Goose IPA is deep) and those are found around more and more, it’s the rare beers like Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout or the 2013 Gillian, that are very clearly the focus and frankly, there are very few breweries that are making rare beers like they are on that large of a scale. Regular beers get lost in the shuffle and there’s a lot of concern about oversaturation. Hell, go in to any liquor store (Like Chicago’s Binny’s) to see the reality of that. White Whale Beers however, the kind of beers the people line up for 5+ hours for or run at breakneck speeds through the rain for a SAMPLE…those are growing, but are less abundant. And it’s there that I think Goose Island is most comfortable.

IMG_20151113_142904The 312 Block Party was a testament to that final point, I feel. While the first night was rainy, the second night had clearer weather and was just jam-packed with folks enjoying themselves and clamouring for the beers on offer. Many didn’t care about the politics of the brewery, they were there for several reasons. The rare beers, the seasonal beers and collaborations (including the incredible Coffee Ale, brewed with Intelligentsia Coffee beans), the music, and because the block party has quite simply embedded itself in to the city. Of course there are many breweries within the city, and when you think of Chicago several come up, but one of them certainly is Goose Island and I know very few locals who aren’t excited when the Block Party comes around each year.

I’m really glad I went on this trip. Aside from getting to see my friend Corben, getting introduced to some fabulous places like the Eleven City Diner and the delightful dive the Ten Cat Tavern, and getting some serious shopping in at The Spice House (my favourite spice shop ever), it was good to see the status of a brewery that I initially had fond memories of and to see that their quality hasn’t dropped over time, but that they have been putting more focus in to higher quality beers and embracing the concept of rarity.

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An Unexpected Brewery – Central City’s Hobbit Beers

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Considering that I’m writing this post with the Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack playing and a replica of the One Ring To Rule Them All hanging from a silver chain around my neck, I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’m a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien’s work. The world, the languages, the beautiful stories that go on throughout his books are nothing short of masterpieces for me. While my preference tends to lie with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s children’s book sibling, The Hobbit, has a special place in my heart as a book that I would escape to when the trials and pressures of being a Grade Fiver would get to me (not a joke, there were plenty). So when a movie trilogy based on the book was being made I was optimistic. The movies are great. They’re no Lord of the Rings (Extended OR theatrical), but they’re fantastic films all the same, that capture many of the characters, in particular the company of Dwarves, in a way that really made the fifth grader in me smile.

So it’s with that same level of optimism I had when I learned that Central City Brewers + Distillers out of Surrey, B.C. would be making a series of beers based on The Hobbit films. The beers would essentially be a Canadian version of Olympia, Washington brewer Fish Brewing Co.‘s Hobbit beers, with Central City using their recipe. So Canada would have a beer based on a movie based on a book that is based on an American beer based on a movie based on a book. The thought of adaptation in this is very interesting and I’m sure that Central City adapted as well as changed slightly to create a series of beers that is altogether unique.

I’m actually a huge fan of beers based on franchises, since the name attached tends to, not totally unlike Bilbo Baggins, get people not inclined to be adventurous with beer to try something new. However, there were a few hurdles to overcome, the big one of these being timing. Fish Brewing came out with their beers in the Fall of last year, which left Central City racing to get their beers finished and out in time for the release of the final Hobbit film. And as an Ontario resident I’d like to add my personal gripe of the beers being available in all provinces of Canada EXCEPT Ontario, with the LCBO deciding not to go with it for reasons that I can only speculate on (hooray).

But anyways! You aren’t here to read my Ontario Retail System slashfic, you came to read about these Hobbit beers! Let’s get to them!

Bolg Belgian Tripel (9.5% ABV): The albino Orc Azog is one of the primary antagonists in the Hobbit film, having killed Thorin Oakensheild’s grandfather, the king under the mountain by beheading him. Thorin managed to cut off his arm, but Azog merely retreated and was able to hunt down his nemesis Thorin with his son Bolg. But the movie actually demoted Bolg, whose father is long dead and is merely mentioned by name in the book, with his son actually being the Orc leader of the Misty Mountains and leader of the Goblins of Moria.

All that to mean that for whatever reason, Bolg’s role in The Hobbit is one of the more problematic and ill-conceived (at least in the movie version). He doesn’t totally work and, I’m afraid, the beer, a belgian tripel, doesn’t either. To its credit, it starts out with promise. Both aroma and taste have some lovely notes of honey, dried fruit, and cloves in them. But the taste falls apart at the end, when things get far, far too bitter.

The Precious Pils (5% ABV): Oooooh we likes it, Precious! We likes it! The colour is golden like the Precious! Golden, Precious! Very balanced, it is, with slight grainses and a clean finish, Precious! The dry note at the end is especially good!

*Gollum! Gollum!*

As it warms the dryness grows, but we still likes it, Precious! We likes it! All ours! Forever and ever!

*Gollum! Gollum!*

Smaug Stout (8.5 ABV): “Revenge! Revenge! The King under the Mountain is dead and where are his kin that dare seek revenge? Girion Lord of Dale is dead, and I have eaten his people like a wolf among sheep, and where are his sons’ sons that dare approach me? I kill where I wish and none dare resist. I laid low the warriors of old and their like is not in the world today. Then I was but young and tender. Now I am old and strong, strong, strong, Thief in the Shadows!”

With a quote like that, you would expect that a beer named after a huge, heavily armoured dragon, especially Smaug, to be pretty damn big. So it’s with no surprise whatsoever that it’s an 8.5% ABV Imperial Stout with Habanero Chilis was created to honour the Dragon who took over the Lonely Mountain.

The aroma sets up a really good expectation, as the chilis come out very prominently, followed closely with its friends cocoa and coffee. The taste is incredibly creamy and smooth. Very well-balanced. A bit disappointing, as the chili notes in the flavour was a lot more subtle than the aroma led me to think it would be, but that aside, it’s an incredibly well put together stout.

All in all, two of the three offerings blew me away. The pilsner is a thing of beauty and the Smaug Stout is an incredibly close second.

Now go gather some of your close Dwarf and Hobbit friends, pour a drink, and sing a song. Or read the book together. Whichever works.

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“Hey, ho, to the bottle I go,
To heal my heart and drown my woe!
Rain may fall and wind may blow,
But there still beeeeee many miles to go!

Sweet is the sound of the pouring rain,
And stream that falls from hill to plain!
Better than rain or rippling brook,
Is a mug of beer inside this Took!

Strange and dark is the world outside,
But in the pub we’ve naught to hide!
With lots of ale, and barley wine,
This evenin’ is surpassin’ fine!

Harvest’s in and cold without,
An’ hobbits strong are hobbits stout!
Naught to fear, and naught to think,
For hobbits nowwww have ale to drink!”

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So I’m A SAVEUR Best Food Blog Awards Finalist…uh…again!

This is a bit late, since I’ve been dealing with computer troubles and catching up on things with a clunky mobile unit, but…earlier this week the nominees for Saveur Magazine’s 5th Annual Best Food Blog Awards were announced and yours truly is a finalist in the category of Wine & Beer!

I’m really honoured to be considered once again in the awards by the editors of Saveur and feel I’m among very talented company in the category. Of course it would be amazing to win, but the fact that I got nominated is an honour in itself.

So how can you help? Well, as I understand it things have changed around from last year and there is going to be two winners in each category. One for Reader’s Pick, and one for Editor’s Pick.

For readers, all you have to do is go to the Category page, find me (I’m #5 in the Best Wine or Beer Blog category), click “VOTE FOR THIS BLOG”, go through a quick and painless registration process, and that’s it! All is done! Best part? Saveur won’t even send you anything for doing that, so don’t worry. Voting closes on APRIL 9TH, so hurry!

However this plays out, I want to again say what a thrill and honour it is to be considered for this award for a second time. It’s a good indication that somewhere along the line I’ve done something right.

 

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The Kinda-Sorta Rise of Session Beers

So these days the words “Session Beers” are entering the mindset of beer geeks and casual beer drinkers more frequently. This isn’t a new thing at all, Session Beers are a very common type of beer, but small breweries are deciding to take a break from their usual projects to create the perfect one and the public eye is wondering just what the hell a Session Beer is.

A Session Beer is, essentially, a beer that is low in alcohol (Usually about 4.5-5% ABV or under) and thus a beer that you can drink frequently during a drinking “session”, which is a period of time where you are having several drinks.  So my version of the perfect session would be sitting on the top of my friend’s apartment building in Bushwick and splitting a six-pack of a beer that barely leaves me buzzed by the end. But really, a session can be spent alone or with friends, at a bar or in the comfort of your own home. Wherever good times are had. There are other aspects to what makes an arguably good session beer, such as balance of flavour and reasonable price and so on, but they are by no means strict rules that one must follow (although I will agree that they are somewhat in line with the spirit of the social aspect).

If you’ve had beers like Guinness, Pilsner Urquell, Newcastle Brown, or even Blue Moon, you’ve had a session beer before. They’re nothing new (Like I said, it’s just an alcohol level). So why am I telling you this?

Because in a craft beer climate where breweries seem to be looking for the next Big Beer (Here, have this Imperial Belgian Stout aged in Bourbon & Absinthe barrels that is roughly 12% ABV!), it pays to know that it is possible to have something simple and finely crafted. Don’t get me wrong, I adore geeking out over over a sample of rum-barrel aged barleywines or basking in the beautiful aromas of an Imperial IPA, but at the end of a particularly tiring day of work, I tend to go for a beer that doesn’t get me buzzed after half a glass and is something I have the option of not thinking about if I don’t want to. The latter is particularly important to me if I really just want to relax. Also, it may be just me, but I think that Sessionable beers have a better chance of “converting” folks on to the smaller breweries than the sensory explosions do. Not that the big ABV lads don’t pull their weight, it’s just I’ve often found the smaller alcohol beers that are made very well end up being great Gateway Beers. It’s for that reason that I think small breweries are starting to put some nice session beers in to their brewing schedules lately.

One such beer that is making the rounds up here in Ontario is Detour Session IPA by Muskoka Brewery and it pretty much matches my criteria for a great session beer. At 4.3% ABV and hopped with Eldorado, Sorachi, and Citra hops, this is a beer with gorgeous, subtle, citrus aromas, a subtle note of mandarin oranges in the taste and a quick dry finish. It’s a very well balanced beer, hoppy enough for you to take notice, but not too hoppy so you’ll end up thinking about it too much. Were we not having lousy Smarch weather right now, I’d be out on the porch slowly sipping this beer. Instead I’ll settle for sipping this at the end of the day in my office and know that I have something to look forward to in the brutal heat of summer.

GoToIPA_6packIn Amerika, the big one that has exploded right now is Stone Brewery’s Go To IPA, which at first was a bit weird to think that Stone would do a 4.5% beer, but then I remembered that they have their Levitation Ale which is 0.1% lower (HUGE difference, I know…).

For more information on some amazing international Session Beers out there, I can’t recommend The Session Beer Project enough. This site has been going on with sporadic updates since 2009 and has been an absolute joy to go through. Be sure to subscribe to it or just flip through the archives.

So when you hear someone say that their beer is really “sessionable”, what they mean is that you can drink a few of them without having to worry about waking up in a city you’ve never been in married to someone you’ve never met. Sometimes that’s a really good thing and after a long day where all you want to do is chill out a bit, it’s the perfect thing.

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“When Are You Going To Get Certified?” – The Prud’homme and Cicerone Beer Certification Programs

“So when are you going to get certified?”

That’s a question I’ve been getting a lot lately. I’ve had this blog for nearly three years now and all around me people are flocking towards beer certification programs like high school seniors are towards College and University pamphlets. It’s the big question that seems to pop up in conversations. “So how are you? How’s work going? Are you going to get certified?” And also similar to College and Universities, there are a number of different certification programs to fit your needs. The two that stand out the most to me are the Prud’homme Beer Certification Program and the Cicerone Certification Program.

More and more bars and breweries are using Cicerone and Prud’homme certifications as a requirement for their employers. While a chunk of that for bars is a publicity thing to attract the beer geeks, it’s also genuinely creating more informed servers and a better overall experience for the customers. (After all, a big way to ensure a customer doesn’t come back is, among many things, a staff that has no idea what they’re selling) Similar for breweries, who find it helpful to use the names “Sommelier” or “Cicerone” as an indication of a set amount of knowledge without the hassle of reciting a résumé every time they meet someone or want to craft a release. Although I’m simplifying it, these are good reasons to get certification.

But which of the two do I take? Both have a really good reputation and each appeal to different personal preferences for the people taking them. I’ve heard good things and bad from both and I’m feeling conflicted. So let’s sort this out a bit and learn something about the programs.

Things seemed to start for Roger Mittag in 1997 when he was hired on to be part of the sales team for Interbrew-owned Oland Specialty Beer Company. As part of his training, they took his team for a full-on crash course in beer education starting in Halifax and going through several countries across the pond. It was there he learned how to store, pour, smell, taste, serve, and talk beer. When they got back, they were then instructed to use what they learned to better educate their customers. It’s there he worked for four years before being tasked by head office to design a training course for the entire Labatt team as the National Sales Manager.  Mittag excelled at this and won an InterBrew award for People Development.

In 2005 he founded Thirst For Knowledge, an organization dedicated to Beer education and in 2006 became the lead organizer for the Ontario Brewing Awards. In 2009 Mittag formed the Prud’homme Beer Certification Program, named after Canadian brewing pioneer Louis Prud’homme. While based primarily in Toronto, there are plans to expand the program across provincial and international borders.

There are three levels of certification in Prud’homme and they go: Beer Enthusiast, Beer Specialist, and Beer Sommelier. All of these courses require class time (with the exception of the Beer Enthusiast level, which has an online option). The most popular course is the first level of certification, as it’s the first step people take within the program regardless of their reasons (Work requirement or personal interest).  The remaining two are technically geared towards people with an interest in pursuing or developing a career in the beer or hospitality industry, but to be honest I witnessed and heard from a healthy mix of people who were there for career and personal interest. In terms of education, you start out learning about tastings, pairings, and the serving process and go to how to develop a beer education event and host a pairing dinner.

A common complaint I’ve heard from people who have taken the program to completion who worked within the industry before attending the courses has been its level of difficulty. For a person already well immersed in the industry and with a near-encyclopedic knowledge on things concerning beer, it may feel like almost a waste of time to be there learning stuff you already know. But what makes this program so worthy of note is that it teaches you something that a lot of beer geeks and industry people often struggle with: how to talk to people about beer in an easy-to-understand way. A lot of people overlook this, but if you have any part of your mind set to teach people about beer, whether it is in a classroom, a brewery tour, a television interview, or even in a dinner with friends, you have to know how to take all that knowledge and boil it down for people in a way that doesn’t go over their heads, isn’t condescending, and encourages further education. As a professor at Humber College’s School of Hospitality, Roger understands the importance of that. I was invited to attend one of the classes in the Beer Sommelier level where students picked a beer style from a hat and had to form a presentation on the history of that style along with providing samples to taste. A focus was, of course, on knowledge of the subject (which the students learned very well), but you also had to make the presentation as if you were addressing a tour group filled with people of varying levels of knowledge. It’s that angle that makes Prud’homme unique to me.

Another admirable quality is the level of comradery from the classroom setting. I’ve talked with people who took the program years ago and still maintain friendships with their classmates. Even on the class I sat in on, there was the social and fun element of beer present, which made the experience enjoyable.

Cicerone, however, isn’t a course. It’s a test. Well, THE test, it seems. Founded by famed beer writer, event organizer, publisher, Veteran beer judge, and award winning home brewer Ray Daniels, the Cicerone Certification Program’s levels are a good indication of technical knowledge and skill in all aspects of beer. It initially started when Daniels grew tired of going in to bars and being served a spoiled beer as a result of poor beer handling. The idea of a knowledge set for bars then grew beyond to brewers, distributors, and educators. With the premise of bringing knowledge in to the hands of the people who handle beer, a complete A-Z list of virtually everything about beer was formed, and the tests were created.

There are three levels in the program: Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, and Master Cicerone. Each test has it’s own syllabus and list of suggested resources, including an optional paid online course called BeerSavvy for the Certified Beer Server level. The Certified Beer Server test is taken online and requires a 75% or more to pass. The other two levels are tests that must be done in person, with schedules and locations for the test put up on the site.

The more you read about the Cicerone Certification program, the more you realize how incredibly industry focused it is. While a home brewer or someone interested in beer is welcome to study and take the tests, these may not be the waters for them. Many bars with a focus on craft beer are making their staff take the Certified Beer Server test as a way to improve the serving experience (and, as I said earlier, publicity that beer geeks appreciate). And with a syllabus that is updated every five years or so, the program does an excellent job of keeping current on techniques and equipment used. A wonderful aspect to the studying is the formations of local study groups for the different levels. Together the groups meet up to go over their notes, quiz each other, and even take field trips to breweries and bars to learn about their systems.

As of writing this, the US-based Cicerone Certification Program just announced the much-anticipated launch of the Canadian branch of the program. Spearheaded by renowned beer consultant, Beerology founder, and Canada’s first ever Master Cicerone Mirella Amato, Cicerone Canada will issue exams and syllabi that reflect the Canadian beer market. The new tests and syllabi will be out March 1st of this year.

So that’s the two of them, boppers. While Prud’homme teaches a lot of great things about beer in a relaxed and warm setting to a varying group of people with both a professional and personal interest in beer, advanced students may find it frustrating despite the valuable lesson of being able to actually talk about the stuff you know, which is an incredibly essential skill to have. At the same time, Cicerone does not seem to have that warmth that Prud’homme does, but upon completion of the exams you may very well be a talking encyclopedia of beer knowledge, which is also incredibly essential.

It should be noted that, based on experiences people have shared, doors will not suddenly open for you upon certification. Many people have often had to explain what a Beer Sommelier or Certified Cicerone actually is to media outlets, and several employers throughout the industry are starting to use certification as a minimum requirement along with experience needed. I say this just to underline that certification will help you, but it is in no way a guarantee to success.

The biggest common factor with the two, and one that Roger Mittag and Ray Daniels both readily agree on in regards to their programs, is that the certification you get at the end is minuscule compared to the knowledge and skills you acquire in the pursuit of it. Like Mirella Amato told me once ages ago, “You’re learning this stuff anyways, so you might as well get something for it”. And you do get something for it. A title that can be put on a résumé to indicate that you have a certain knowledge and skill set. An indication that you know what the hell you’re talking about. One or two words that you can carry with you instead of a list of qualifications.

I initially started research for this post in an attempt to figure out which course to take for my own personal development. As I mentioned earlier, there is this pressing urge in my brain that I should look towards certification as that next big step, and I wasn’t sure which route to actually take.

But in the end as I’m typing this, reading through the notes I’ve made, checking on the e-mails from people who have gone through certification, and reflecting on my observations, I see that, like picking the right beer with the right cheese, the two programs complement one another. Learning everything on the technical aspect of beer along with proper handling (among many other things) is incredibly important to me.  But so is being able to talk about it with people and to teach them about this world in a wonderful, laid back setting. So I’m in the position of finding it’s not one or the other, but a combination that may be needed.

While I am essentially back where I started in my mindset, I now have the required knowledge to move ahead with a decision. Figures!

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